September 15, 2008
Three University of Toronto scientists used the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii to take images of the young star 1RXS J160929.1-210524 (which lies about 500 light-years from Earth) and a candidate companion of that star. They also obtained spectra to confirm the nature of the companion, which has a mass about 8 times that of Jupiter, and lies roughly 330 times the Earth-Sun distance from its star. For comparison, the most distant planet in our solar system, Neptune, orbits the Sun at only about 30 times the Earth-Sun distance. The parent star is similar in mass to the Sun, but is much younger.
"This is the first time we have directly seen a planetary mass object in a likely orbit around a star like our Sun," said David Lafrenicre, lead author of a paper submitted to the Astrophysical Journal Letters and also posted online. "If we confirm that this object is indeed gravitationally tied to the star, it will be a major step forward."
Until now, the only planet-like bodies that have been directly imaged outside of the solar system are either free-floating in space (i.e. not found around a star), or orbit brown dwarfs, which are dim and make it easier to detect planetary-mass companions.
The existence of a planetary-mass companion so far from its parent star comes as a surprise and poses a challenge to theoretical models of star and planet formation. "This discovery is yet another reminder of the truly remarkable diversity of worlds out there, and it's a strong hint that nature may have more than one mechanism for producing planetary mass companions to normal stars," said Ray Jayawardhana, team member and author of a forthcoming book on extrasolar planets titled Worlds Beyond. He's also a contributing editor to Astronomy magazine.
The team's Gemini observations took advantage of adaptive optics technology to dramatically reduce distortions caused by turbulence in Earth's atmosphere. The near-infrared images and spectra of the suspected planetary object indicate that it is too cool to be a star or even a more massive brown dwarf, and that it is young. Taken together, such findings confirm that it is a very young, very low-mass object at roughly the same distance from Earth as the star.
Even though the likelihood of a chance alignment between such an object and a similarly young star is rather small, it will take up to 2 years to verify that the star and its likely planet are moving through space together. "Of course, it would be premature to say that the object is definitely orbiting this star, but the evidence is extremely compelling. This will be a very intensely studied object for the next few years!" said Lafrenicre.
Team member Marten van Kerkwijk described the group's search method. "We targeted young stars so that any planetary mass object they hosted would not have had time to cool, and thus would still be relatively bright," he said. "This is one reason we were able to see it at all."
The Jupiter-sized body has an estimated temperature of about 1800 Kelvin (about 1500° C), much hotter than Jupiter, which has a temperature of about 160 Kelvin (-110° C). Its likely host is a young star of type K7 with an estimated mass of about 85 percent that of the Sun.
The work that led to this discovery is part of a survey of more than 85 stars in the Upper Scorpius association, a group of young stars formed about 5 million years ago. It uses the Gemini telescope's high- resolution adaptive optics capabilities to determine the different types of companions that can form around young stars: stars, brown dwarfs, or planetary mass objects. "This discovery certainly has us looking forward to what other surprises nature has in stock for us," said Van Kerkwijk.